Publications

Sexton, Renard. "Aid as a Tool against Insurgency: Evidence from Contested and Controlled Territory in Afghanistan." American Political Science Review, 110(4), pp. 731–749. (link to author's copy

Abstract: Findings in political science, economics and security studies suggest that during civil war aid can be used to help establish control of contested areas and reduce levels of insurgent violence by winning the “hearts and minds” of the population. These accounts typically ignore the strategic implications of aid distribution by pro-government forces, namely that rebel groups should resist the implementation of aid projects that would undermine their position. Using a new dataset of fine-grained and geo-located violence incidents in Afghanistan and random variation in the administration of some US counter-insurgency aid, I show that insurgents strategically respond to counter-insurgency aid in contested districts by resisting through violent means. The results indicate that civilian aid only reduces insurgent violence when distributed in districts already controlled by pro-government forces; when allocated to contested districts civilian aid in fact causes a significant increase in insurgent violence. The results also indicate that the effect of counterinsurgency aid on violence varies by project type, and can be overwhelmed by macro-level strategic changes in the conflict.
Coverage: Washington Post ; U.S. Institute of Peace

Sexton, Renard, Rachel Wellhausen and Mike Findley. "How Government Reactions to Violence Worsen Social Welfare: Evidence from Peru." American Journal of Political Science, 63(2), pp. 353-367. (link to author’s copy)

Abstract: Dissident violence inflicts many costs on society, but some of the longest‐lasting consequences for civilians may be indirect, due to the government's response. We explore how government policy responses affect social welfare, specifically through budgetary shifts. Using subnational violence and budgeting data for Peru, we demonstrate that attacks on soldiers during the budget negotiation period drive a shift from local social services, especially health, to defense. One soldier fatality implies a 0.13 percentage point reduction in the local health budget share (2008–12). Health budget cuts due to a single soldier fatality result in 76 predicted additional infant deaths 2 years later. We show that the effect on health budgeting operates through decreases in women's use of health facilities and postnatal services. We offer evidence that Peru's coercive response indirectly harms civilians due to butter‐to‐guns budgetary shifts. Our results identify a budgetary mechanism that translates dissident violence into a deterioration in social welfare.
Coverage: Axios ; Nature Human Behaviour 'Research Highlight' ; Political Violence at a Glance

"Strategic Violence during Democratization: Evidence from Myanmar" (with Darin Christensen and Mai Nguyen). World Politics, 71(2), pp. 332-366. (link to author’s copy)

Abstract: Democratic transitions are often followed by conflict. In this paper we explore one explanation for this fighting: the military’s strategic use of violence to retain control of economically valuable regions. We find evidence of this dynamic in Myanmar, a country transitioning from four decades of military rule. Fearing that the new civilian government will assert authority over jade mining, the military initiates violence in mining townships to deter civilian control. Using geocoded data on conflict and jade mines, we find support for this argument: as Myanmar starts to transition in 2011, we observe a sharp increase in conflicts involving the military in jade-mining areas. We address alternative explanations, including a nationwide shift in the military’s strategy, the co-location of mines and military headquarters, commodity prices, opposition to a controversial dam, and trends specific to Kachin State. We substantiate the theoretical claim that outgoing generals use instability to retain rents — a winning strategy where plausible challenges to state authority provide pretense for asserting military control over lucrative territory.

Abstract: Natural resource extraction is economically important in many developing countries, but social conflict can threaten the viability of the sector. This paper examines why polluting extractive industries sometimes generate social mobilization but often do not. First, I distinguish acute, highly visible environmental externalities from chronic, less observable pollution, showing that only the former generate social mobilization. Second, I explore how high quality local governance can mitigate the local resource curse dynamic by both reducing pollution and improving compensation in mining-intensive areas. The analysis uses micro-level data on extractive commodities, water pollution, children's and livestock health, local government quality and mining-related social conflict in Peru to demonstrate the full causal pathway of the local resource curse.
Coverage: Washington Post

Abstract: Recent studies have shown that sharing politician or bureaucrat performance information with voters seldom succeed at generating substantial bottom-up pressure and improved government performance. This study tests whether instead equipping local elites with information about the procedural workings of decentralized political processes allows them to participate more effectively and generate accountability pressure. A randomized field experiment in Peru demonstrates that this information can sometimes have unintended effects on participation, government performance and protest. This study finds that training workshops in fact reduce participation in local ``participatory budgeting" processes, reduce confidence in local institutions and increase support for civil unrest as a tool for sanctioning politicians. Although the intervention increases the initiation of recalls for poor-performing mayors, these mayors respond to the recall threat by further reducing their effort. The evidence indicates that high expectations about the functioning of local democracy, when not met in practice, prompt a strategic withdrawal from poorly perceived processes and into direct action.

Abstract: In recent years, outsider politicians have won presidential elections on the strength of signature, often norm-defying, policy proposals. Although effective at mobilizing supporters at election time, these policies can be difficult to implement in practice. We posit that getting local outsider politicians on board is crucial for implementation of these initiatives, as well as establishing political coalitions. Examining the case of President Duterte's "War on Drugs" in the Philippines, we find that mayors who are locked out of establishment patronage networks take the lead in implementing this controversial policy. Taking advantage of a natural experiment, we find that outsider mayors receive 40 percent less public works appropriations than establishment-linked mayors, especially in high corruption categories that are critical to clientelism. In turn, they execute Duterte's drug war much more aggressively than those from the establishment Liberal Party. These municipalities have 40 percent more drug-related raids and incidents, and there is a 60 percent greater probability that the police kill a drug suspect. Using data from the the 2019 mayoral election campaign that took place three years after the drug war began, we find that -- in contrast with past elections -- these former outsiders get about 5 percentage points more vote-shares than insiders, and are much more likely to win as a party-switcher to Duterte's PDP-LABAN coalition. The results illustrate a potential trade-off between clientelism and violence at the local level.

"Aid, Insurgency and the Public Perceptions Mechanism: Evidence from German Projects in Northern Afghanistan ” (working paper up soon)

Works in Progress

  • Deescalating Conflict in the Philippines (with Nico Ravanilla and Dotan Haim; pilot ongoing with the Philippine National Police, supported by IPA Peace and Recovery, UCSD, Princeton)

  • The art of not being coerced: How outside options shape elections in weakly institutionalized
    democracies, with evidence from Paraguay and Afghanistan.
    (with Umberto Mignozetti)

  • Legalizing Informal Mining: Impediments and Implications (with Santiago Saavedra; pilot in Colombia ongoing; supported by PRDG and Colciencias)

  • Meta-analysis of post-conflict peacebuilding interventions (with Susanna Campbell, Mike Findley)

  • The strategy and impacts of rebel public services provision: Evidence from Taliban courts in Afghanistan (with Austin Wright)

Pre-analysis / Pre-registration

  • Pre-analysis Plan (Concept Note) for “The political economy of the Philippines Drug War” written 15 Jan 2019 link

  • PAP for “Evaluating the localized effects of German BMZ aid in northern Afghanistan using geo-coded citizen responses.” (2018) link to registry

  • PAP for "Decentralization, Elite Participation and Democratic Disillusionment: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Peru" (2016) link to registry